Seminar on FoE in China and presentation of the book SILENCED

Report from Seminar and Book Launch

Seminar on FoE in China and presentation of the book SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship by Øystein Alme and Morten Vågen (ISBN 91-97384445 Amaryllis 2006)

Wednesday 23. August, Human Rights House, Oslo

Panel of speakers:
Øystein Alme, writer, manager of «Voice of Tibet»
Elin Sæther, scholarship holder, University of Oslo
Åshild Kolås, program leader, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo
Torbjørn Færøvik, journalist, writer and China expert

Chair: Carl Morten Iversen, secretary general, Norwegian PEN
Minutes: Elisabet W. Middelthon, board member, Norwegian PEN

Norwegian PEN president, Kjell Olaf Jensen, welcomed all participants to the seminar.  Carl Morten Iversen introduced the panel and gave the floor to Øystein Alme.

Øystein Alme has been the manager of «Voice of Tibet», a short-wave radio station based in Oslo, for 10 years.  The channel is an important voice in the passing on of information about the situation in China, and is being listened to by, among others, the Security Council at the U.N.  China has pledged to abide by the same international declarations on freedom of the press and freedom of expressions as we do in Norway.  However, the Communist Party has a monopoly on almost all communication and exercise strict control and censorship.

In SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship, Alme gives a summary of his experiences with «Voice of Tibet» for the past 10 years.  The several examples of the scrambling of these broadcasts by Chinese authorities, demonstrate Chinese authorities extreme sensitivity towards uncensored material.

The book lists China´s national and international obligations.  China views any criticism of breaches on human rights as a mingling in internal affairs, and support all countries, e.g. Zimbabwe, with equally strict regulations on free expression and censorship.

New technology is increasingly influencing the daily lives of the Chinese.  Internet, electronic mail and text messages (SMS) are available.  However, the big search engines, like Yahoo and Google, are cooperating with the authorities and have accepted their demands regarding control of all electronic communications.  There are many examples of censorship and subsequent prosecution  of the users of new technology.  Printed media, like the «Tibet Daily», is for the Communist Party, and not for the people.

Journalist writing about corruption risk arrests and jail sentences up to 10 years, a fact that leads to self-censorship.  Still, the limits for what you can write are constantly being pushed.  However, people in China receive more information today than ten years ago, even though the authorities do all they can to prevent it.

The international society holds some power of influence.  With the 2008 Olympic Games as Chinas big exibition to the world, demonstrating their wish to appear as an international super-power, NGOs all over the world will try to influence the authorities.  China will be more attentive now and the Party Congress next fall will send important signals regarding China´s future strategy.  Consequently, this «train» is moving now.

What is China afraid of? Why are they afraid of a small radio station like «Voice of Tibet»?  Evidently, all information that brings alternative news, other that what you hear from state controlled media, makes the Chinese population aware of the fact that they are being deceived.  That is why all critical voices are being censored and punished.

Between 20 and 25 thousand foreign journalists are expected to visit China and Beijing in August 2008.  SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship has been written in order to demonstrate the importance of free access to information.  As we are approaching the 2008 Olympics, free access for journalists to write about a variety of important topics, the hindring of censorship, reprisals and serious breaches on freedom of expression, will be increasingly important in a country with 1,3 billion people.

Elin Sæther desribed the book as very interesting, demonstrating that «Voice of Tibet» is an important and brave radio channel.

She pointed to the fact that development of the Chinese society had not been at a stand still after Mao.  Chinese economy was previously the main reason that the media were financially dependant on the state, but the authorities have gradually withdrawn subsidies and allowed for more financial independence.  Chinese media are now more in tune with the market economy.  It is no longer possible to print four pages of party propaganda in the newspapers – they have been forced to become more interesting and entertaining.  This is a new trend which has been evolving gradually and the people behind it are writers and journalists who engage themselves in the future of the Chinese society.  The Tian An Men Massacre in 1989 was a set-back for free expressions, but that situation has gradually improved during the 1990ies.

Journalists wish to represent the voice of the people.  They want to write about problems facing the society, not only so called positive, state-edited news.  They want to write about corruption, AIDS, health problems, etc.  There are severe restrictions regarding how these themes may be treated in the media.  Any criticism of party policy is forbidden.  It is therefore important to find ways to present these topics so that they pass through the censors, without too much self-censorship.

It is also important to keep in mind that media coverage varies throughout the world, and that also western media experience censorship and self-censorship.

Åshild Kolås has worked as a Tibet-researcher since 1997.  She first visited China and Tibet in 1988.

She started by saying that it is difficult to generalize about «China» and «the Chinese», even about «Chinese authorities».  Based on personal experiences and extensive field work in Tibet (11 months in Yunnan 2002-3)  she assessed the book as being both engaging and well written.  It is not easy to visualize a topic like freedom of expression and it is not easy to get attention in the media on this topic.

She agreed to the main conclusions in the book: There is a great potential for positive change in the Chinese society.  She also agreed that there are many idealistic, Chinese journalists, but that the federal authorities are also interested in uncovering corruption on a lower, local level.  Local, illegal tax-collection does not benefit the federal authorities.  Consequently, it is the local media that uncover corruption, and this is accepted by the federal authorities.

Chinese authorities have used lots of resources on the development of the internet, also outside the big cities.  In Yunnan, Kolås registererd internet-cafés on «almost every streetcorner», but most internet users were more inclined to play games than engage in serious business or seeking out information.  There was a need for information, and the locals were obviously aware of the fact that this need was not covered through available newspapers and other news media, in particular coverage of «sensitive» topics.

To a certain extent the Chinese are aware of the fact that official media do not give neutral information about what is going on outside China.  This became particularly obvious during the SARS-epidemic, when there was a serious lack of information and, consequently, more or less trustworthy rumors were flourishing.  Information came and went through the grapewine.

When Kolås first arrived in China in 1998, she also witnessed other methods to sustain «law and order».  But harassment always takes place behind closed doors and the location of those closed doors vary from society to society.

Torbjørn Færøvik said the book was both important and practical.  But China has a long way to go, he said.

There is a big difference, also for journalists, between a brief visit in Beijing or Shanghai, and a longer stay where you travel through the country and maybe get a chance to grasp how huge and fantastic this manysided country is.  Walking the streets of Shanghai today is like walking in a big parade.  In the «olden» days, all you could see were people dressed up in Mao uniforms, now it´s all neon-light commercials.

Many things have happened during the past 30 years, both financially and politically.  But changes are hard to measure.  How do you measure – what are the terms of reference?

The degree of freedom of expression is greater today than at any point during the years since the Communist Party seized power in 1949.  There is a new situation for free expression in most fields of society.  Previously, «dangerous» ideas could only be thought, but now you can speak out.  100 million Chinese have access to the internet.  They can read newspapers from all over the world, they can listen to the BBC.  Almost everyone owns a cellphone.  When Mao died there were only one telephone per 800.000 inhabitants. (must be checked).

What happens when 1,3 billion people get access to new technology?  The authorities want to keep control, but technology is always a few steps up front.  This is a loosing battle for the authorities.  Every year millions of people visit China.  They travel throughout the country  and people are influenced by new ideas.  The Chinese people act and think in a long, historic perspective. Only 30 years have passed since Mao died.  We must admit that a positive development has taken place in China.  Six years ago China was selected to arrange the 2008 Olympics.  Let us hope that this will contribute to even more openness in China.

However, during the next two years, the situation will tighten up – we will experience a Gorbatsjov-effect.  The Chinese leaders are between 60 and 65 years old.  From now on, the authorities will be much more attentive and will hit hard on any signs of political opposition.

How should a strategy to influence China in connection with the Olympics be designed?

What should be the angle of international campaigns in order for these to be successful?

25 000 journalists will visit China during the Olympic Games.  The authorities will gradually tighten communication possibilities and working conditions for journalists during the years preceding the Olympics.  Simultaneously, Chinese authorities will have to listen to international signals focusing on (the lack of) human rights and freedom of expression.  If conditions become less strict, it will be because the authorities are pragmatic and see that it pays off.

Torbjørn Færøvik is not very optimistic regarding the 2008 Olympics, human rights and free expression.  Foreign criticism is perceived as unreasonable meddling with domestic affairs.  There is a fundamental insecurity regarding what can happen with such a great number of foreign – and domestic – visitors in Beijing during the Olympics.  Therefore, the authorities need total control.

It is important to try to influence international companies like Yahoo and Google, etc. and to focus critically on their kneeling for the authorities, eagerly trying to achieve full access to the huge, Chinese market.  Critical voices outside China should be activated and supported.

The western world must be aware that the outcome of advocacy may be limited.  Changes in Chinese society will develop as an inner process, not through pressure from the outside world.  For the Chinese, it is important not to «loose face», consequently «noisy» campaigns may often be counterproductive.  These cultural differences must be considered.

«Quiet diplomacy» may work far better than official diplomacy.  Norwegian politicians have a tendency to exaggerate the importance of their talks with the authorities in China, and through Norwegian media one gets the impression that Norway is important and may influence China.  The western world should be aware of the fact that economic development is more important than human rights to the Chinese at present.  The Chinese countryside is still in the middle ages, and the contrast to the high-tech cities is incomprehensible.

Conclusions and recommendations

Most people in China are now better off, but there is a wide gap between the extremely poor and the incomprehensibly rich.  A modern Chinese city dweller easily spends NOK 3.000 (500 euro) on a dinner, whereas NOK 212 (about 25 euros) constitutes the yearly income for a poor farmer.

Economic relaxation and development and new technology will be of great importance for future development in China.  The curbing of free expression has already started.  So far, 70 cases of harassment against foreign journalists in Beijing have been registered.  Tibet is far worse off than China, hence the Olympics may be even more important for Tibet than for China.

There is also an internal migration taking place in China.  Over the past 30 years the Chinese have migrated from west to east and 250 million people will follow.  In this case the valves have to be gradually opened to allow for this huge process which will take place over the next 20 – 30 years. Consequently, our expectations regarding what we may be able to accomplish must be realistic.

Some elements that may be influential:

1. The wide gap between the poor and the rich
2. As very few people will benefit from economic growth, there will be more focus on free expression and freedom of organzation in future.
3. People wishing to work for these rights are under strict control and repression at present.  There will be no sudden, total change, but we can observe that several structures are changing.
4. Strangely enough, harassment may be regarded as a positive sign, because it shows that expressions are being taken seriously.
5. The gradual curbing of human rights has already started. It is important to stress that anyone wanting to influence China in connection with the 2008 Olympics should start today.

Translated into English from the Norwegian minutes by Carl Morten Iversen

Rapport fra Kinaseminar 23.08.06

Rapport fra Kinaseminar og presentasjon av boken SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship


av Øystein Alme and Morten Vågen
(ISBN 91-97384445 Amaryllis 2006)

i Menneskerettighetshuset, Tordenskioldsgt 6B, Oslo, 23.08.06

Øystein Alme, skribent, daglig leder av Voice of Tibet
Elin Sæther, stipendiat i samfunnsgeografi ved UiO
Åshild Kolås, leder for programmet for Konflikthåndtering og fredsbygging  ved PRIO, Norsk institutt for fredsforskning
Torbjørn Færøvik, journalist, forfatter og Kina-kjenner

Ordstyrer: Carl Morten Iversen, generalsekretær i Norsk PEN
Referent: Elisabet W. Middelthon, styremedlem i Norsk PEN

Kjell Olaf Jensen, leder i Norsk PEN, ønsket velkommen til lanseringen av boken SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship og til seminaret om ytringsfrihetens stilling i Kina. Temaet er særskilt aktuelt fordi Kina vil ha verdens oppmerksomhet rettet mot seg frem til 2008 da landet skal arrangere De olympiske leker.

Carl Morten Iversen presenterte deltakerne og ga ordet til Øystein Alme.

Øystein Alme redegjorde for sin bakgrunn. Han har vært leder av’Voice of Tibet’ en radio som sender over kortbølgen,  i ca. 10 år. Denne kanalen er blitt en sentral internasjonal aktør i formidling av situasjonen i Kina, en kanal som lyttes til av bl.a. Sikkerhetsrådet  i FN.  Kina har forpliktet seg til å følge de samme retningslinjer for ytrings- og pressefrihet som vi er kjent med i Norge, men kommunistpartiet styrer alle sider ved samfunnslivet. Partiledelsen har nærmest monopol på all kommunikasjon og et statsapparat til å utføre kontroll og sensur.

I boken SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship gir Øystein Alme et resymé av sine erfaringer i ‘Voice of Tibet’ gjennom 10 år. De mange forsøk på ’å støye’ sendingene, viser hvor redde de kinesiske myndighetene er for usensurert stoff.

Boken tar for seg Kinas nasjonale og internasjonale forpliktelser. Kina ser på kritikk av brudd på menneskerettigheter som innblanding i interne forhold, og støtter alle land (bl.a. Zimbabwe) som har de samme restriktive lover  om ytringsfrihet og sensur.

Ny teknologi har påvirket kinesernes hverdag i vesentlig grad. De har nå tilgang på internet, e-post og tekstmeldinger (SMS). De store sendemotorene (for eksempel Yahoo og Google) samarbeider imidlertid med myndighetene og har gått med på deres krav om kontroll og innsyn. Det er mange eksempler på sensur av disse mediene  og påfølgende represalier overfor brukerne av ny teknologi. De trykte mediene, avisen Tibet Daily, er til for partiet, ikke for folket.

Journalister som har skrevet om korrupsjon risikerer arrestasjon og fengsel i inntil 10 år, noe som fører til selvsensur. Likevel  tøyes grensene, og det er mer informasjon som når ut til folket via forskjellige kanaler enn for ti år siden, selv om myndighetene gjør hva de kan for å stramme til.

Det internasjonale samfunn har påvirkningskraft, og med OL i 2008 som Kinas store utstillingsvindu der de gjerne vil fremstå som en internasjonal stormakt, har frivillige organisasjoner i alle land mulighet til å påvirke myndighetene. Kina vil være mer lydhør nå enn tidligere, og partikongressen neste år vil gi viktige signaler om Kinas strategi fremover. Toget går derfor nå!

Hva er Kina redd for? Hvorfor er Kina redd for en liten radiostasjon som ’Voice of Tibet’? All informasjon som forteller noe annet enn det man hører fra statlige medier, er med på å gjøre det kinesiske folk klar over at de er ført bak lyset. Derfor sensureres og straffes alle kritiske røster.
I 2008 forventes 20000 – 25000 utenlandske journalister å besøke Kina. SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship er skrevet for å vise hvor viktig tilgang på informasjon er i Kina. Frem mot OL i 2008 er det om å gjøre å arbeide for at nasjonale og internasjonale journalister letter skal få tilgang til å skrive om viktige tema, og å forhindre sensur, represalier og grove brudd på ytringsfriheten i et land der det bor 1.3 milliarder mennesker.

Elin Sæther, stipendiat i samfunnsgeografi ved UiO, sa i sitt innlegg at SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship er en god og interessant bok som viser at Voice of Tibet er en viktig og modig radiokanal.

Utviklingen i Kina har ikke stått stille etter Mao, sa hun. Økonomien bidro tidligere til at mediene var økonomisk avhengige av stat og parti, men staten har  nå gradvis trukket tilbake subsidier og gitt større økonomisk frihet til mediene. De er blitt mer markedstilpasset. Det er blitt umulig å selge fire sider med propagandapamfletter. Avisene måtte bli mer interessante og underholdende. Dette er noe helt nytt som har utviklet seg gradvis, og foregangskvinner og –menn er journalister med stort samfunnsengasjement. Massakren på Den himmelske freds plass i 1989 førte til innstramminger i  ytringsfriheten, men utover på 90-tallet ble situasjonen lettere.

Journalistene ønsker å være en stemme nedenfra, fra folket. De ønsker å beskrive samfunnsproblemer, ikke bare positivt oppbyggelig stoff redigert av staten. De vil skrive om korrupsjon, AIDS, smitte, helsevesen m.m. Det er sterke begrensninger i hvordan man kan beskrive samfunnsproblemene. Kritikk av partipolitikken er forbudt, derfor blir det viktig å finne måter å presentere stoffet på slik at det passerer sensuren – uten selvsensur.

Det er viktig å huske at all mediedekning har et ståsted, og at vi i vesten også har en form for sensur – og selvsensur, sa Elin Sæther.

Åshild Kolås, leder for programmet for Konflikthåndtering og fredsbygging  ved PRIO, Institutt for fredsforskning, har forsket på Tibet siden 1997. Hun besøkte Kina og Tibet første gang i 1988.

Åshild Kolås innledet med å si at det er vanskelig å generalisere om ’Kina’ og ’kinesere’ og til og med om ’kinesiske myndigheter’. Ut fra personlige erfaringer etter flere feltarbeid i Tibet (sist 11 måneder i Yunnan i 2002 – 2003) vurderer hun boken SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship som engasjerende og god. Det er ikke lett å synliggjøre et tema som ytringsfrihet; det er også vanskelig å få oppmerksomhet omkring dette i dagens mediebilde, men hun synes Øystein Alme har klart det med denne boken.

Hun sa seg enig i bokens hovedkonklusjon: Det er et stort potensial for positive endringer i Kina i dag. Hun sa seg også enig med Elin Sæther i at det finnes mange idealistiske kinesiske journalister, men sentrale myndigheter har også interesse av å avdekke korrupsjon på provinsnivå og lavere nedover i systemet, der det foregår mye ulovlig inndriving av skatter og avgifter som sentrale myndigheter ikke tjener på. Derfor er det gjerne nasjonale medier som avdekker korrupsjon (for eksempel ved bruk av skjult kamera) hos lokale myndigheter. Dette er sentrale myndigheter innforstått med.

Myndighetene i Kina har satset mye på utbygging av internett – også utenfor de større byene. I Yunnan opplevde Åshild Kolås at det var internett-kafeer på ’hvert gatehjørne’, selv om bruken av disse kafeene for mange begrenser seg til spill mer enn forretningsdrift eller seriøs informasjonssøking. Det var et stort behov for informasjon, og lokalbefolkningen var ganske klar over at dette behovet ikke ble dekket via tilgjengelige aviser og andre nyhetsmedier, f eks. når det gjelder dekning av kritikkverdige forhold. Folk er også til en viss grad klar over at offentlige media ikke gir nøytral informasjon om det som skjer utenfor Kina. Dette ble særlig klart under SARS-epidemien da det var stor informasjonsmangel og dårlig funderte rykter fikk fritt spillerom. Informasjonen gikk gjennom jungeltelegrafen.

Da hun kom til Kina første gang i 1998 opplevde hun også andre metoder for å opprettholde ’lov og orden’. Men overgrep skjer alltid bak lukkede dører, og det er forskjell i ulike samfunn på hvor man setter opp de ’lukkede dørene’.

Siste innleder, Torbjørn Færøvik, berømmet boken SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship og mente den er både viktig og nyttig. Men Kina har en lang vei å gå, sa han.

Det er forskjell på et kort besøk i Beijing og Shanghai – også for journalister – og en reise over tid der en kan begynne å fatte hvor stort og fantastisk dette mangfoldige landet er. Å vandre i en gate i Shanghai er som å gå i et stort 17. mai tog. I ’gamle dager’ så man bare folk i maoklær, nå er det bare lysende reklame.

Mange ting har skjedd de siste 30 årene, både økonomisk og på det politiske plan. Men det er vanskelig å måle, for hva skal man måle med?

Graden av ytringsfrihet er i dag større enn noen gang siden kommunismen overtok i 1949. Det er en ny situasjon for meningsytringer på alle områder. Før kunne man bare tenke de farlige tankene, nå kan man si dem. Hundre millioner kinesere har nå adgang til internett. De kan lese aviser fra hele verden, de kan lytte til BBC. Mobiltelefoner er snart ’allemannseie’. Da Mao døde var det én telefon per 800 000 personer. (er dette et korrekt tall??)

Hva skjer når 1.3 milliarder mennesker får tilgang til ny teknologi?  Myndighetene vil kontrollere, men teknologien ligger alltid to-tre trinn foran. Myndighetene vil tape denne kampen. Hvert år besøker millioner av mennesker det store Kina. De reiser på kryss og tvers og setter sine spor. Kineserne er et folk som handler og tenker i et langt, historisk perspektiv. Det er bare 30 år siden Mao døde. Vi må erkjenne at det har skjedd mye positivt i Kina. For seks år siden ble det kjent at Kina skal arrangere OL i 2008. Det er bare å håpe at det vil føre til at Kina vil bli mer åpent.

Men i løpet av de neste to årene vil vi oppleve en tilstramming, vi vil se en Gorbatsjov-effekt. Lederne er 60-65 år gamle. Myndighetene vil følge mer og mer med, og de vil slå ned på alle tilløp til opposisjon.

Hvordan legge opp en strategi for å påvirke Kina i forhold til OL i 2008?

Hvordan bør internasjonale kampanjer vinkles for å være effektive?

25 000 journalister kommer til å besøke Kina i forbindelse med OL. Myndighetene kommer til å  gjennomføre en gradvis tilstramming frem mot Olympiaden – samtidig som Kina vil være nødt til å ta internasjonale signaler som gjelder menneskerettigheter og ytringsfrihet alvorlig. Hvis det skjer en oppmykning, er det  fordi myndighetene er pragmatiske og ser at det lønner seg.

Torbjørn Færøvik ser ikke veldig optimistisk på OL 2008 når det gjelder menneskerettigheter og ytringsfrihet. Kritikk fra utlandet oppfattes som en utidig innblanding i indre anliggender. Det hersker en grunnleggende usikkerhet med hensyn til hva som kan skje med så mange utenlandske – og innenlandske – besøkende, og derfor har myndighetene et stort behov for kontroll – full kontroll – under OL i 2008

Det vil være viktig å påvirke internasjonale aktører som Yahoo og Google m.fl. og rette kritisk oppmerksomhet mot deres knefall for myndighetene i  sin iver etter å oppnå tilgang til det store kinesiske marked. Man bør aktivisere og støtte opinionen utenfor Kina.

Vesten  må være klar over at påvirkningsmulighetene er begrenset. Forandringene kommer som et resultat av det som skjer i Kina, ikke utenfor. Kampanjer og stor støy kan ofte virke mot sin hensikt og for kinesere er det viktig å ikke tape ansikt. Disse kulturforskjellene må vi ta i betraktning.

Stille diplomati kan ha en langt større effekt enn offentlig diplomati. Norske politikere blåser stort opp sine samtaler under reiser i Kina, og fra norske medier kan man få det inntrykk at Norge er viktig og kan påvirke Kina

Vi i vesten bør være klar over at den økonomiske utvikling er viktigere enn menneskerettigheter. Den kinesiske landsbygda befinner seg tidlig i middelalderen – kontrasten til de høyteknologiske storbyene er ufattelig.

Konklusjon med innspill fra panelet:
De fleste har fått det bedre i Kina, men det er et stort sprik mellom utrolig fattige og ufattelig rike. En moderne kineser i storbyen bruker lett kr. 3000 på en middag, mens kr. 212 representerer årsinntekten for en annen.

Økonomisk oppmykning og ny teknologi vil være av stor betydning for den fremtidige utvikling av Kina.

Innstramming av ytringsfriheten har allerede begynt.  Det er allerede registrert 70 tilfeller av trakassering av utenlandske journalister i Beijing. Tibet er langt verre stilt enn Kina, og derfor er OL viktigere for Tibet enn for Kina.

Det skjer også en folkevandring i Kina. I løpet av de siste tretti år har  kineserne vandret fra vest mot øst, og 250 millioner mennesker kommer til å følge etter. Her må ventilen åpnes gradvis for den store prosessen som skal finne sted de neste 20 – 30 årene. Vi må ha realistiske forhåpninger om hva vi kan klare å utrette.

Forhold som kommer til å spille inn:
1.    Kløften mellom fattige og rike
2.    Ytrings- og organisasjonsfrihet vil presse seg frem – fordi så mange får liten andel i veksten.
3.     Sterk kontroll og undertrykking av folk som ønsker å arbeide for bedre rettigheter. Det skjer ingen plutselig og fullstendig omvelting, men flere strukturer er i endring.
4.    Trakassering kan være et godt tegn, for det viser at ytringene tas alvorlig.
5.    Å begynne å påvirke Kina med tanke på Olympiaden i 2008 bør begynne nå – den gradvise tilstramming er allerede begynt.

Sensur og ytringsfrihet i Kina


Sensur og ytringsfrihet i Kina

Presentasjon av boken «Silenced» av Øystein Alme

Onsdag 23. august kl 10.00 – 12.30, Menneskerettighetshuset,
Tordenskjoldsgate 6 B, Oslo

"Silenced" av Øystein Alme handler om ytringsfrihet i Kina

«Silenced» av Øystein Alme er en innføring i kinesisk politikk og lovverk, som ytringsfrihet og sensur

Boka «Silenced», som er skrevet på engelsk og utgitt på det svenske forlaget Amaryllis, gir en innføring i kinesisk politikk og lovverk.  Forfatteren vil selv gi en kort presentasjon av boken før et ekspertpanel kommenterer innholdet.  Etter en kort pause blir det åpen debatt.

Øystein Alme, skribent, daglig leder i Voice of Tibet
Elin Sæther, stipendiat i samfunnsgeografi ved universitetet i Oslo, skriver avhandling om kritisk presse i Kina
Åshild Kolås, programdirektør, PRIO – Norsk Institutt for fredsforskning
Torbjørn Færøvik, journalist, forfatter og Kina-ekspert

Ordstyrer: Carl Morten Iversen, generalsekretær Norsk PEN

Seminaret er åpent for alle interesserte – ingen påmelding.
Boken vil være til salgs på seminaret

The responsibility of a free press

The responsibility of a free press

By Kjell Olaf Jensen, president, Norwegian P.E.N.
Speech given at a seminar in Minsk, Belarus, October 19. 2002

In many parts of the world, the Scandinavian countries are looked upon as models of democracy and human rights.

To a certain degree, this picture is correct: We are a happy corner of the world, maybe partly because no major powers seem to be very interested in what is going on in our small societies, maybe also because not very much is really going on. And on this year’s survey made by the UN, Norway figures as the one country in the world where living conditions are the best, followed by Canada, Sweden, Denmark and the USA.

Still, even our people did learn, some time ago, that political freedom, freedom of expression and other human rights were something one had to fight for. But this was 60 years ago, and it concerned my parents’ generation. Today, this seems to a certain degree to be forgotten knowledge. We are happy, so why care?

The obvious answer to this question, «Why care?», is formulated by the Finnish 19th-century poet Runeberg, in a beautiful poem entitled «Paavo, the Peasant». Paavo is a poor peasant with only a small field of rye somewhere in the Finnish forests. One year, the rye seems to yield a beautiful crop; but just before harvesting time, there comes a hail storm destroying most of the corn. And Paavo tells his wife: Grind 50% pine rind into the bread flour, so that we shall survive the coming winter. Every year, this scenario is repeated. Each year, the crop looks great, but then some calamity occurs – frost, hurricane, thunderstorm, destroying the rye; and every year, Paavo tells his wife to grind 50% pine rind into the bread flour, in order to survive the coming winter.

But finally, one year, everything goes well, and Paavo is able to make a magnificent rye harvest. Now at last, we can make real rye flour for our bread, says his wife. No, says Paavo, you just grind 50% pine rind into the flour, for behold: Our neighbour’s field lies there, frozen, and he needs bread to survive the coming winter.

The second answer to the question «Why care?» when you live in an idyllic society, is less altruistic and maybe more realistic. If we do not maintain a continuous fight for our right to freedom of expression, it will die; a freedom which is not used continually, will get lost. An emblematic illustration for this is the famous Lutheran priest Martin Niemöller from Nazi Germany and his laconic remarks: «First, they took the communists,» said Niemöller, «and I did not protest, since I am not a communist. Then, they abducted the Jews, but I did not say anything, for I am not a Jew. Afterwards, they arrested the catholics, but why should I bother, I am not a catholic? And when they came to get hold of me, there was, strangely enough, nobody left to protest.»

The Norwegian government established some years ago a commission under the leadership of the former President of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, history professor Francis Sejersted, whose task it should be to reformulate the constitutional article guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression, which is article 100 in Norway’s almost 200 years old Constitution. The commission should find out whether or not there was any reason to change the wording of Article 100. They arrived at a conclusion which was dangerously erroneous according to my view, namely to leave unchanged the old idea that the right to freedom of expression should be granted by the Parliament since it is essential for the maintenance of a free society. But if this is the case, the Parliament may also, any time, decide that the right to freedom of expression is no longer essential for a free society, and if so, the Constitution would make it the duty of the Parliament to abolish the right to freedom of expression, according to this logic. If the constitutional reason for having this right was not defined by what is useful for society, if it was defined by some sort of natural law like it is in the French Revolution’s Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, or even by some sort of divine law, it would not be possible for any given Parliament to abolish our right to freedom of expression.

The Norwegian Commission for the Freedom of Expression, as this commission was called, also stressed the importance of having a continuous debate going on in what the commission called «the vast public space», if we want to keep our right to freedom of expression and a real democracy in which the whole population has a right – and a duty – to participate. This space, or this permanent forum of debate, is defined, managed and governed mostly by what we, a little derogatively, call the mass media, which puts an extremely heavy responsibility on these media, both on the written press and on radio and television. (Maybe on the Internet users as well, but since Internet is neither edited nor published by anyone, the responsibility in this case falls on every individual user of the medium.)

So far, everything seems quite logical and without problems. And yet, when we take a closer look at the media in our free society, we immediately feel that something is very wrong.

I come more or less directly from the International Book Fair in Frankfurt, where there were, as always, interesting and essential debates all over the place for a week, also concerning the right to freedom of expression and how to conserve a free society. Little of all this was reflected in our Norwegian media, and mainly in the smaller newspapers, magazines and early morning and late night programs on the radio. One of our largest newspapers, priding itself of being a cultural paper caring for the right to freedom of expression on which it lives, had three journalists at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Excellent. But these journalists spent three days on following one Norwegian publisher around everywhere, reporting on all his doings. The reason for this peculiar interest for one single, small publisher was that he had just published a book written by the Norwegian King’s young daughter, the Princess of Norway, in which Her Royal Highness described her marriage ceremony earlier this year – an event which had already been most plentifully covered by the media at the time. This was seen as more important than all other events going on at the Book Fair.

Some years ago, Moris Farhi visited Oslo. Several of you will know Moris Farhi – he is a very interesting novelist and essayist, at that time he also was Chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. He is a Jew, born in Turkey, half Greek, with family roots in Egypt and Lebanon, living in London as a British citizen. Brief, an international figure of the highest interest for «the vast public space». We organized interviews by several interested journalists. But in some of the main Norwegian newspapers we met a problem. Yes, the editors saw the point and understood why they ought to be interested, but the problem was that Monica Lewinsky was visiting Oslo at the same time, promoting the book about her eventual relationship with then president Bill Clinton, so all the journalists were busy with a problem much more interesting and important than poor Moris Farhi. Television, both public and private: same thing.

This begins to resemble the society described by Aldous Huxley in his famous novel from 1934: Brave New World. In Huxley’s society, no repression is necessary, because everybody is conditioned to think that the existing society is wonderful, and that they all are extremely lucky to live in just this society and to have just this position in this society. All literary classics, with Shakespeare as the foremost example, are banished: «We are not interested in such things». Instead, citizens play stupid ball games and drug themselves. The American professor Neil Postman approached the same question several years ago, by calling his most well-known book We Are Amusing Ourselves to Death – in this book professor Postman states, among other things, that American university students today are not able to concentrate their attention for more than 20 minutes at a time, this being the average time between two publicity spots in most American television channels.

In Aldous Huxley’s society, there are no expressions worthy of the name. And what does the right to freedom of expression mean, in a society where there are no real expressions because all meaningful expressions are deemed to be «unnecessary» or not to be funny or «cool» enough?

This is where the activities of many of the larger media in the West may be bringing us today – this is, quite simply, what may happen when the media do not know their responsibility in a free society, namely to be a watchdog for the society, to scrutinize the society continually and put it under continuous debate, as the Danish literary critic Georg Brandes said more than 100 years ago. In the post-communist societies, you know from personal experience what George Orwell’s society from his novel 1984 would look like. Today, we have to guard our media against the danger of falling into Aldous Huxley’s trap, amusing ourselves to death.

Do you remember Homer’s episode about Scylla and Carybdis, from the Odyssee?